How My Lawsuit Against the TSA Made Airports Safe For the Constitution Again

(Originally posted at Huffington Post.)

On March 29, 2009, I was traveling through Lambert-St. Louis International Airport carrying approximately $4,700 in cash. I'm the Director of Development for Campaign for Liberty, a political organization that grew out of Congressman Ron Paul's presidential campaign and promotes constitutional principles of freedom. The cash was money the Campaign for Liberty had received at our Regional Conference in St. Louis — the proceeds of ticket sales, T-shirts, stickers, books, etc. — that I was transporting back to our office in Virginia. The price for bringing my organization's cash box through TSA screening? TSA agents detained me for half an hour of harassing questioning.

Of course, carrying cash on flights within the United States is not illegal. My case was one of many troubling incidents in which the TSA attempted to transform its limited search authority into a license to invade people's privacy by performing sweeping, unfounded searches that have nothing to do with keeping flights safe. The only difference between others who have been subjected to these types of illegal searches and myself is that I was equipped with a pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution and my iPhone. And I wasn't afraid to use either.

Although my knowledge of the law was limited, I did not believe that I should have to surrender my constitutional rights because I chose to travel by plane. I knew I was not doing anything illegal or suspicious. I also knew the government's interest in investigating me had nothing to do with flight safety. There was no suggestion I was carrying anything dangerous to anyone on board or the plane itself. The TSA agents focused their entire interrogation on the fact that I was carrying $4,700 cash. Based on that, they held me in an interrogation room to investigate me; I remained polite but insisted on at least being informed of my rights under the Constitution.

You don't have to believe my characterization of the interrogation. I recorded audio of the incident with my iPhone. Two things emerge clearly from the recording: first, the agents were not plausibly investigating evidence of a risk to flight safety; and second, they were not interested in informing me of my legal rights. When a combination of TSA agents and police officers crowded the room, the interactions became like something you'd see on a television police drama.

I was repeatedly asked where I worked, what I was doing with the money, where I got the money, and a host of other unnecessary questions. My response? "Am I legally required to answer?" I was told I would be taken to see the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), asked if I needed to be handcuffed, and informed, "If you have nothing to hide, just answer the questions." Upon my final statement that I was looking for direction as I did not understand the law, I was informed, "We're gonna help you understand the law," and I was lead down the hall to be further investigated, I was told, by the FBI and/or DEA. Although I never did end up speaking with the FBI or DEA, it's worth listening to the audio of my interrogation to get a clear sense of the situation.

The law states that TSA agents should be able to search for weapons and explosives, things that could pose a threat to flight safety. But extending their searches to fishing expeditions for general law enforcement purposes — searches TSA agents are not trained to perform — only serves to distract from that task.

On June 18, 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on my behalf in federal court, charging TSA with violating my constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. My focus was on principle rather than financial gain, and I did not seek money in the lawsuit. Rather, my case asked the court to order TSA screeners to conform their searches to the Constitution's requirements. Under the Constitution, TSA screeners do not have the unlimited ability to search and detain passengers. Search procedures designed for purposes other than screening for weapons and explosives exceed TSA's authority and violate passenger rights, and we hoped a court order could generate a policy from TSA that respected all travelers' liberties.

What a difference a lawsuit makes. Eight days before the government's response was due in our case, TSA issued a new policy directive making clear that its safety screening procedures would be strictly limited to passenger searches for the purpose of safeguarding flight safety. In combination with other directives issued in the wake of our lawsuit, TSA's policy now makes clear that passengers should not experience the kind of suspicionless detention and questioning I had been subjected to.

In light of this victory, yesterday the ACLU informed the court of our intention to voluntarily dismiss the suit. The Constitution draws a critical distinction, which these new directives reflect: when subjecting individuals to blanket, suspicionless searches, TSA agents must adhere to their limited mandate of protecting flights against weapons or explosives. The new policy is clear: passengers are no longer forced to check their constitutional rights at the airport counter, and that is a victory for all.

Steve Bierfeldt is the Director of Development for Campaign for Liberty, an organization that seeks to promote and defend the principles of individual liberty, constitutional government, sound money, free markets, and a non-interventionist foreign policy through educational and political activity.

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"The new policy is clear: passengers are no longer forced to check their constitutional rights at the airport counter, and that is a victory for all." -Steve Bierfeldt

Thank you, Steve. Thank you, ACLU. Keep up the good work. We need to reclaim our lost "rights", one by one.


Great work ACLU.


2009-November 13
I fear that your victory is only temporary. Perhaps the next president will reverse this policy...hopefully not...but who knows.
If you had proceeded with your lawsuit and won.... then a precedent would have been established which future cases could reference.
Besides, what punishment did the officers or the TSA receive... non I'm afraid. They only really learn when they have to should have pursued financial damages.


Give me break, they were concerned you might be a drug dealer. Who carries that much cash!? So let the drug dealers be protected so you won't be inconvienced?! Why didn't you save everyone the hassle and change your cash into a check?


Want to bet the anonymous poster above is a disgruntled airport screener? Because the war on pot is even more effective than the war on my travel tweezers and loofah scrub. If I wanted to take on a plastic box cutter like actual terrorists have successfully used to actually crash a plane? Well... plastic doesn't show on the metal detectors. Tender boxes? They make this GREAT siren go off. In some foreign countries they just have a buzzer go off when the janitor presses it. It's not even attached to anything. Third world people don't quite know how it works. Powered by SUSPICION.


Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

My experiences with TSA agents is that that are poorly trained, ill-informed about the law (or unwilling to provide answers to the questions such as you asked), and generally unprofessional. Most have an real "attitude".

Your experience reinforces the time/effort TSA wastes on this kind of stupidity, instead of trying to apprehend actual terrorists (cf. The Atlantic Monthly's article on how easy it is to sneak stuff on board, if you are intent on doing so).

Dave Huntsman

Two part response:
1. Thank you, sir; and thank you, ACLU.
2. I fear this is only temporary.
- neither the individuals involved admitted they had broken the oath they took to obey and protect the Constitution;
- neither did the TSA or government.
Officially, in internal government discussions, I suspect, they have instead confirmed that: they DO indeed have the right to search anyone, for any reason, at any time; that by getting the suit withdrawn they maintain that right; and all they have to do in the future is maintain a single, on-call, non-TSA law enforcement official to come and see anything TSA thinks violates something, somewhere; and that person's presence will make it 'legal'.
This was only one battle, folks. We all need to get our pocket copy of the Constitution and carry them in our carry-on bags. We'll need them to give us strength..


As per answer #4: Lots of people carry lots of cash for lots of reasons. I happen to collect rental income from many properties whose tenants pay in cash. Sometimes it goes in the bank, sometimes not. It's no one's business how I choose to handle my money.

Dennis Coffey

Mr. Bierfeldt has encountered an unconstitional search and seizure in the heart of the heartland. I speak from experience, as a native of St. Louis who moved west to escape their "America, love it or leave it" attitude and abuse of the concept of patriotism. I am a patriot in the tradition or Mark Twain who stated that "a patriot is one who supports his country 100% of the time...and the government when it deserves it."

For the eight years prior to this we had a government whose use of fear to promote their agenda made them totally unworthy of our support. To be worthy of support our current government must move quickly to free us from the unconstitutional USA Patriot Act. They must move much more quickly than they currently are doing.

I agree with Dave Huntsman in post 7, when he reminds us that "[t]his was only one battle, folks. We all need to get our pocket copy of the Constitution and carry them in our carry-on bags. We'll need them to give us strength.."


I have a case in federal district court against a local police department for the same thing. Since when is having cash a crime. I was falsely arrested and forcibly removed from my home without a warrant or exigent circumstances. I knew I was entitled to bail, so I asked the officer to get my wallet out of my truck. He demanded to know where I got nearly $3K in cash and I told him it was none of his business. He induced correctional officials to hold me in violation of my constitutional right to liberty and bail even though the Bail Commissioner told them I was eligible for release on personal recognizance while he went back to my home and searched it without a warrant. I do know the law. I spent 27 years in the criminal justice career field, mostly in law enforcement supervision. I have been a Justice of the Peace since 2002 and hold an undergraduate and masters degree in Criminal Justice. Every person needs to know their civil and constitutional rights or at least where to go to protect them (and I don't mean to an attorney) The real problem is that the rule of law protects overzealous criminal justice officials especially if you are a black male accused of a crime.


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